Return to Babel
Taking a second look at the second effort from Mumford & Sons
I know what you’re thinking. Given an opportunity to review a new and current CD, why would I choose one that’s more than a year old from a band that is already…well represented…in popular media? Well—because I believe in owning up to mistakes and it seems I may have made a mistake in judging this album harshly during its debut.
Mumford & Sons
When Mumford & Sons first hit the scene in late 2009 they were well received, and why not? Folk-rock is certainly nothing new (these kids could be the grandchildren of Steeleye Span after all), but it doesn’t make a mainstream splash very often. Their debut album Sigh No More instantly yielded two hit singles. Although the rest of the material on that album wasn’t necessarily radio-ready, there was cohesion, a unifying vibe that left no doubt as to the band’s sense of identity. The lyrics were charming, even if they were occasionally a little strained. Context is everything in this case. If this has been their fourth or fifth album it might have relegated them to “Little Engine That Almost Could” status, but for a debut album it was really quite impressive, rife with potential.
It was this potential that left me impatiently waiting for their next entry, Babel, released in late 2012. If I had been asked to write a review of it at the time it would have been pretty simple, “I really enjoyed these songs more the first time I heard them on Sigh No More.” That’s really what I thought, that’s really how it sounded to me. I imagined a scenario in which the band had 20 or t30 original tunes and selected a handful of the strongest for the first album and then took what was left to make the second one. I was disappointed. I had been touting the band for a couple of years at that point, selling them hard and it was one of my standard stump speeches to say, “Man, I can’t wait to see what they do next!” When I finally did. it was not what I had wanted it to be and I was left with the feeling that I had been mistaken, that they “got lucky” on album one and if they didn’t pull something unusually good out for act three, then that was probably the end of them, at least far as I was concerned.
Turns out I may have been wrong. “Anticipation is better than realization” is a cliché and one of the greatest founts of dissatisfaction. I had considered the first album “great” and expected the second album to be “double great” but it is not “double great,” it is “better than the first album.” There is growth here, slow and steady to be sure, but growth none the less, and that’s what you want to see in a group of musicians you like. The band, if not entirely mature, is maturing and from a commercial standpoint the album has so far generated five hit singles to Sigh No More’s two. By that reasoning alone it is certainly a more successful album.
Musically the album is rock-solid, the boys are talented instrumentalists and the arrangements are extremely catchy and anthem-like with hooks aplenty. Lyrically it’s still…not weak per se, but not as deep as one might hope and this too may be an effect of my expectations versus what the band is actually trying to accomplish. Perhaps it’s the folk instrumentation that throws me, but I want these songs to be deeper and more lyrically complex (I’m a word guy when all is said and done) but whether I like it or not, this is pop music. It is very well-done pop music, it does everything that quality pop music should do, but at the end of the day one does not turn to pop music for its complex philosophical message.
I still believe the band has the potential to do deeper and more serious work, but if pop music is what they do at least it’s some of the best pop music I’ve heard in a decade. It’s hard to say what will come next, the band is on an indefinite hiatus—but I expect there will be a third album, and whether it is a pop masterpiece or something new and introspective, I look forward to hearing it. So, a reminder, kids: When you evaluate a thing, be it art, music, literature or truck-stop cooking, it is imperative to judge its merits based on what it is meant to be rather than what you think it ought to be. Forgetting that has led me to paraphrase Dr. Peter Venkman: “I’m gonna take back some of the things I said about you; Babel is actually a very fine album.”